Research

’Define Black’: On the Exoticism of Black Women

We can only infer what two White men discussing the definition of Black in relation to sex with women means. Fortunately, sociologists that sudy race provide to some insights.

In recently released tapes, Donald Trump, our Republican presidential candidate, can be heard in an interview with the infamous Howard Stern, discussing his sexual experiences with women. When prompted to discuss Black women, Mother Jones reports the candidate’s response:

Later in the same interview, Stern asks Trump if he’s “ever had a black woman in bed.” Trump responds by asking Stern what his “definition of black” is. “Interesting, his bed is a rainbow. I like this discussion,” Stern says. “The rainbow coalition, as Rev. Jesse would say,” responds Trump.

We can only infer what two White men discussing the ‘definition of Black’ in relation to sex with women means. Fortunately, sociologists that study race provide some insights.

Exoticism of Whiteness

Often when people think of exoticism, they think of how society defines people of color as the ‘Other’ in contrast to the ‘norm’ of Whiteness. Sociologist Natividad Gutiérrez Chong, however, argues fair skin and European features get exoticized as well. In her 2014 Journal of Intercultural Studies article, she mentions a content analysis of 15 men’s magazines available in Mexico:

It is evident that all the women portrayed in the ad pages have the same physical features: white skin, blond or fair hair. There are no dark or ethnic women appearing in the ad pages… These women are portrayed as commodities not easy to reach; they advertise desirability on account of their fair skin and hair. By reading these cheap fictional stories, the male consumer may fantasise with the ‘exoticism’ of the fair skin.

Setting Whiteness as the standard of beauty for women ensures the exoticism of women of color reinforces the desirability of White women, often through the association of women of color, particularly Black women, with less desirability.

Colorism

Robert L. Reece discusses colorism in a recent article published in The Review of Black Political Economy.  Colorism contributes to the perceived exoticism of some people of color. This includes the idea people who identify as multiracial are more attractive, as Reece states “in many cases exoticism is about deviating from the white standard of beauty but not so much as to be perceived as only black.”1Thus, the exoticism of non-whites includes conflating multiracial identity with beauty and attractiveness.

Scientific Racism

History shows the exoticism of Black women’s bodies extends beyond multiracial identity. Sociologist Rashawn Ray writes about Sara Bartman and the Jezebel stereotype:

The sexualized jezebel is best visualized as Sarah Bartmann, who is also known as the Hottentot Venus. Born in the late 1700s in South Africa, Sarah dreamed of becoming an entertainer but was sold into indentured servitude. While in Great Britain, Sarah was put on display in freak shows for her large butt and elongated labia. At the time of her death in her mid-twenties, Sarah’s brain and genital remains were placed in a French museum where they stayed until the 1970s when the South African government requested their return. [^2]

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Much of the focus on Black women’s bodies during these centuries revolved around scientific racism, which included a wide range of theories and perspectives like Social Darwinism and eugenics.2 The centuries long obsession with Bartmann gives a clear example of how the exoticism of Black women is rooted in the physical and metaphorical deconstruction of her Blackness.

Defining Black Womanhood for One’s Self

I can attest to personal experiences where men attempt to define my Blackness. My experience best echoes the research by Robert Reece on colorism. Men who perceive me as multiracial often assume correctly that I have some sort of Asian heritage, although they falter on the assumption that my mother (who is light skin), must be biracial.

From men who don’t assume I am multiracial, however, I get referred to as ‘redbone,’ which I presume is a term of endearment at best and a reference to some sort of far gone eugenic belief at worst.

According to my parents, the Jamaican equivalent of redbone is ‘Brownie.’ Jamaica people often refer to me as ‘High yellow,’ which I gather in the Caribbean context implies Asian heritage as well, considering the history of colorism in the Caribbean context includes stratification of ethnic and racial identities.

When exoticism is imposed on you as a Black woman, it takes a moment to get your bearings, to find ways to exist outside of this framing. I strategize must often with the help of Black women musicians and authors like Toni Morrison. Within the context of Black women’s artistic labor, there are numerous examples of Black womanhood conceptualized independently of society’s definitions.

What are some ways you look for liberating images of Black womanhood? Let me know in the comments.


  1. Reece 2016, pp. 143; emphasis added 
  2. Winant 2000

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